1st person POV, 31 Days of Halloween, art installations, cinema, eponymous characters, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, found-footage films, guardians, horror, horror films, isolated communities, isolation, Jon Foster, Karl Mueller, Lovecraftian, Mark Steger, Movies, Mr. Jones, mysterious artists, neighbors, Sarah Jones, surreal, totems, voice-over narration, writer-director
Every town has one: a reclusive, secretive outcast who resists all friendly advances from the neighboring townsfolk, preferring his/her own company to that of the outside world. They’re the kinds of people who “polite” folks whisper about behind their hands and children make up stories about. In most cases, these recluses are probably just people who want to be left alone to do their own thing, whatever that may be, and I can’t pretend not to see eye-to-eye with them. In rare cases, however, these societal outcasts aren’t just loners but…well, let’s just call them sequestered, shall we? Sometimes, circumstances make it necessary for certain folks to isolate themselves away from everyone else. These can be for mundane reasons, of course, or they can be for sinister reasons (the provenance of the horror film for too many years to count). Sometimes, however, these outcasts can be sequestered away from society for reasons beyond our grasp…reasons that might just melt our comfortably safe world into candle wax if we were ever to come face to face with them.
Writer-director Karl Mueller’s debut feature, Mr. Jones (2013), takes a close look at just such an individual, the eponymous Mr. Jones of the title. Using the currently ubiquitous indie horror trend of “found footage/first-person POV” films, Mueller has no shortage of fascinating ideas, occasionally even lurching into the all-engulfing cosmic horror of Lovecraft. For all of the positives here, however, Mr. Jones is an ultimately confusing, fractured film, one with an ending that’s so positively out-there that it feels as if there’s a missing reel somewhere. The film is rough going, at times, but there’s a genuine intelligence and desire for coloring outside the lines that makes it worth a watch, even if the end result is a bit disappointing.
Mr. Jones opens with one of those scenes that, for better or worse, will pretty much determine how an audience feels about the film: Scott (Jon Foster) holds a camcorder on Penny (Sarah Jones), his wife, as she drives their car to their new home out in the country. Right off the bat, we get one of the moldiest clichés in the found-footage rule-book (“Thou shalt always film the characters as they drive, for no apparent reason”) and I’ll be frank: my initial impression wasn’t exactly favorable. There’s a redundant voice-over, from the husband, that adds nothing to the narrative and plenty of nearly stock scenes of the couple discussing their, apparently, fractious relationship. So far, absolutely nothing that hasn’t been done to death by this point in the sub-genre.
Just when it seems as if we’re settling into another one of those “odd things happen to an unhappy couple” movies, however, Mueller and company inject a little life into the film. While out exploring their new environs, the couple happen upon another house, an isolated, out-of-the-way little place that seems to be the opposite of “welcoming.” Scott’s a wannabe documentarian which, in this case, means that he’s a busy-body, so he eagerly lets himself into the strange house for a little exploration, even though the place is obviously occupied and the furthest thing from abandoned. Penny, the voice of reason, thinks this is the furthest thing from a good idea until she gets a gander of the bizarre, amazing sculptures in the basement. At that point, she looks like a kid who just got Willie Wonka’s golden ticket. What gives?
Turns out that Penny recognizes some of the sculptures as belonging to the ultra-reclusive artist Mr. Jones, a mysterious figure that she describes as “like Banksy and J.D. Salinger.” Just then, the home-owner returns and the pair narrowly make it out after Penny creates a diversion. Despite their near brush with breaking-and-entering charges, however, Penny is completely hooked: she now wants to make a documentary about the most obvious subject of all: their world-famous, reclusive, mysterious next-door neighbor.
At this point, we get some standard “talking head” interviews with “experts,” who describe Mr. Jones’ decidedly strange M.O.: the artist mails his artwork to random, unsuspecting people around the world, people who then begin to experience drastic changes in personal luck, as it were. There are only nine verified Jones pieces in the whole world: any new work would be worth more than seven figures, or so we’re told. The allure, then, is obvious: we’re always fascinated by what we don’t understand, even more so when it involves giving away priceless possessions to complete strangers.
As Penny and Scott continue to poke around, however, they begin to uncover evidence that Mr. Jones might be more than just an outsider art hero: he may actually be involved in some sort of arcane, supernatural ritual that involves his sculptures, pieces which may or may not function as some sort of totems. The truth of the matter is actually more bizarre than even the couple can imagine, however, and leads to a chaotic, genuinely odd climax that drives home that most basic of truisms: good fences do, indeed, make good neighbors.
From a story/idea standpoint, Mr. Jones is rock-solid: Mueller manages to nail a Lovecraft vibe, particularly in the info dump scenes, that promises huge revelations and soul-shattering terror. The sculptures, themselves, are properly unearthly and, in some cases, flat-out badass: the “scarecrow,” in particular, is a real marvel and the kind of iconic image that most genre filmmakers would kill for.
On the other hand, however, the film is actually kind of a mess. The found-footage aspects are pretty tired and old-hat, especially when played as straight as they are here: there are so many “Blair Witch”-type “selfie” shots that it felt as if the filmmakers had just watched the film and were determined to craft their own version of events. Neither of the leads have much personality or individuality, although neither are obnoxious, for that matter: like much of the film, they’re just kind of there to help advance the storyline. The film’s climax, in particular, is massively confusing and seems to come from out of nowhere: it’s a real head-scratcher that’s definitely thought-provoking, albeit for the wrong reasons. I’m pretty sure I know what’s going on but not completely sure: normally, that feeling would delight me, since it would indicate something outside the box. In this case, however, it’s more of a shrug and accept kind of thing: again, probably not what the filmmakers were shooting for.
Despite the fundamental problems with the movie, there was still a solid underlying idea that was fascinating and certainly worthy of exploration, even if the final result was decidedly hum-drum. While this was Mueller’s first directorial effort, he previously wrote the screenplay to French extreme-horror guru Xavier Gen’s mean-spirited The Divide (2011), which indicates someone who slowly climbing the indie-horror strata. In time, I’m confident that Mueller will have something under his belt that’s at least as explosive as Gens’ unforgettable Frontier(s) (2007). Mr. Jones isn’t that film, not by a long shot, but it’s not a bad way to begin the journey, either.